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Reviewed by:
  • Esther’s Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews
  • Ted Feldman
Esther’s Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews, edited by Houman Sarshar. Philadelphia: The Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History, The Graduate Society Foundation, in association with the Jewish Publication Society, 2002. 457 pp. $110.00.

So much of today’s world focuses on the politics of George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” that we tend to forget that the ancient and modern Near East is filled with people whose human and cultural history is a pillar to the modern world. Encircled by the wrappings of the Islamic Revolution, the Jews of Iran are easily overlooked in an abyss of theocracy and fear. Therefore, Houman Sarshar’s editorial effort to make accessible the history and culture of the Iranian Jewish community awakens us to look beyond the front door of today’s Iran.

In his preface, Sarshar states that “one of the principal goals of this publication is thus not only to correct the present oversight with respect to the very existence of Jews in Iran by introducing this ancient community to a readership that will hopefully extend [End Page 169] beyond the present intimate circle of Judeo-Persian scholars, but also to preserve—as much as possible—the history, culture and traditions of this gradually fading subculture of world Jewry.”

Esther’s Children takes the reader on this journey of over 2500 years in a beautiful and articulate manner. Sarshar has assembled, through the talents of twenty-five scholars, a series of articles that focus clearly on the creative, painful, varied, and intense centuries of the Iranian Jewish community’s history. Six of these articles are devoted to history—the Achaemenid Period, the Status of Jews in the Sasanian Empire, Toward a History of Muslim-Jewish Interaction in Medieval Iran, the Safavid Era, Jews in Qajar Iran, the Pahlavi Monarchy, and the Islamic Revolution. Except for a few occasional lapses into what felt like academic presentation (and which could have been enhanced by a few more maps), these articles assume the task of describing events that shaped the history of Persian and Persian-Jewish culture. These articles are the necessary framework for the other nineteen articles in the book and represent the work of sincere and passionate scholars of Iranian Jewish history.

The ultimate beauty of this volume comes in its combination of words and photographs. What we find in the book is the unique combination of pictures speaking a thousand words and a thousand words speaking a picture. The often heartwarming, nostalgic photos of families and events focusing on the period after the 1906 Constitutional Revolution give life to history and remind us that, while the past is often portrayed by descriptions of war, politics, and the lives of leaders, it is the everyday lives of people that constitute the essence of our world. Photos of the archaeology and art of the ancient past remind us that this community of Jews has been part of and endured the myriad of permutations of a complex political and social history.

And then there are the words which become pictures—articles on Judeo-Persian Literature, the Impure Jew, the Anusim of Mashhad, Clothing and Makeup, Jewish Persian Carpets, Worlds Apart: Mothers, Daughters, and Family Life, and so on, these articles adding depth of life to the faces that appear in the photos. To learn of people’s struggles, of how Jews coped in an often hostile environment, of how they tried to be the same as their neighbors while maintaining their differences, of what it was like to endure discrimination living in the Muslim world of Iran, of how these Jews built a warm, loving community which lives through today in disparate parts of the world—that is the legacy we receive from Esther’s Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews.

If Sarshar and the Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History wanted to provide an accessible portrait of a Jewish community, which, as a result of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, currently finds itself dispersed from its homeland and concerned about its preservation, they have overwhelmingly succeeded in this beautiful, compelling volume.

Ted Feldman
Executive Director
Jewish Family and...

Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 169-170
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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